Local debut: Heavy stuff for teens' souls

It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, plowing through three or four 130-page books a week, eagerly exercising a reader’s young appetite.
I read books called The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon and The Shooting Party. I read books about adolescent troubles and fantastic adventures and idyllic prairie life. The darkest book I recall reading was Bridge to Terabithia. I was haunted by that book, in part because of the riddle in the pronunciation of its title, but mostly because a girl dies a tragic death in the final chapters.
So when I read a book for adolescents like Shooting Monarchs, whose first 17 pages offer up a three-year-old tethered to his swing-set by his carousing mother, and a young girl herded into a car trunk and killed, I’m filled with uncertainty. Have times changed? Or was I an eighth grader with a sheltered and prudish reading list?
Shooting Monarchs is the first book for teens I have ever read that, in addition to the traditional themes of first love, junior prom, and high school bullies, presents the reader with the death penalty dilemma. 
The novel arrives in bookstores this month with a starred review from Booklist, an honor reserved for that publication’s highest recommendations. Apparently, abandoned children who become homicidal teens are applauded literary characters for the post-pubescent set. And if anyone should know the reading tastes of that generation, it’s the author-– John Halliday is the director of our own Jefferson Madison Regional Library. 
“A lot of the themes are very serious,” says Halliday. “Justice … the power of human kindness. I really did try to avoid pat answers, though. Teenagers don’t want to be preached to.”
The final chapter of this story of a seriously misguided youth stops just short of passing sentence on the abject antagonist; Halliday declines to take an overt stance regarding capital punishment as it applies to minors. Indeed, the only direct assertion to be found in Shooting Monarchs is the postscript, in which the author cites national statistics on abduction and murder among young girls and then states unambiguously, “Teenage girls should not jog alone.”
This first novel is inspired by a real girl who did.
She fared much worse than the plucky gals of Willoughby Chase… and shared a fate far more common in America than in Terabithia.  

John Halliday’s debut novel Shooting Monarchs (Simon & Schuster) is available at area bookstores and at Amazon.com. His second novel for young adults, Predictions, due in September, is decidedly less somber.

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